The scar on the back of Brandon Brooks’ right foot is a black-cherry slash no more than two inches long. It marks the place where Dr. Robert Anderson made a quick incision, above the heel, so he could repair Brooks’ Achilles tendon, which had ruptured during the Eagles’ playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints on Jan. 13.
Seated at his locker late Sunday afternoon, minutes after the Eagles’ 22-14 victory over the Bears — a game in which Brooks, the Eagles’ right guard, created instant urban renewal with every block, grading out on Pro Football Focus as the best lineman in the NFL — he leaned down and traced his finger across the scar and described in detail the procedure that produced it. Anderson had used a four-pronged tool that resembled a small fork to pull and hold the damaged tissue together, then weaved a metal suture through the tendon.
“So, technically,” Brooks said, “your Achilles is supposed to be stronger now.”
Supposed to be. If you want three words to capture Brooks’ approach to his comeback from what was presumed to be a devastating, perhaps career-threatening injury, you could do worse than those three.
The notions that Brooks would need a year to rehabilitate his Achilles, that a 6-foot-5, 335-pound man who earns his living from the brutal business of run- and pass-blocking at football’s highest level should be cautious, and that he would return at something less than full strength entered his mind only so that he could dismiss them.
He has played 618 offensive snaps this season and has committed one penalty. One. He has not allowed a sack all season and didn’t allow even a pass pressure Sunday. Put it this way: Brooks was named to the Pro Bowl each of the last two seasons, and he’s better now — after tearing his Achilles — than he was before.
“I think he’s the best lineman in the NFL right now, if we’re being honest,” Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said. “Motherf—er’s bigger than every guard in the league, makes it look easier than any guard in the league. I don’t see anybody making it look that easy. F—g freak of nature. He had a long offseason of rehabbing, keeping to himself.
"Now the rewards are coming for him. There weren’t any moments where he felt sorry for himself. He’s just f—g different, a different f—g dude, man.”
As it turned out, for a man who in 2016 acknowledged that an anxiety disorder was crippling his psyche and hindering his play and took steps to help himself, crumpling to the Superdome turf last winter wasn’t as much an obstacle as it was an inspiration. Brooks described the injury as a freeing, clarifying moment, an opportunity to test his mental and physical limits, then push past them.
For the first three months after the surgery, Brooks could conduct only upper-body workouts, could only lift weights. “I don’t want to say I was in prison,” he said, “but ... I was f—g bench-pressing five days a week.”
Instead of settling for the four-days-per-week treatment schedule that his doctors and trainers recommended, he spent several thousand dollars on the requisite equipment and medical machinery.
A portable cold-and-compression system that he could wrap around his leg to encourage healing, a neuromuscular stimulation device, a slant board, bungee bands, kettle bells, dumbbells, a seated calf machine: Brooks bought them all.
That way, after his regular rehab sessions at the NovaCare Complex at 9 a.m. Monday through Thursday, he could perform the same treatments and exercises at home each afternoon and weekend.
He called Anderson at least once a day, usually more, begging the doctor to clear him early so he could advance to the next stage of rehab. He had one of the Eagles’ strength coaches don a pair of cleats and charge at him, as if the coach were a blitzing linebacker or an oncoming defensive lineman, so Brooks could test his lateral movement.
“I didn’t want to come back and have people be like, ‘Well, he did just tear his Achilles,’ ” Brooks said. “For me, that was the worst thing that could happen. I wanted to come back and have motherf—s be like, ‘What the [hell] happened with this guy?’ I wasn’t really focused on vacations. I was focused on my Achilles and ballin’.”
Ahead of their preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens on Aug. 22, the Eagles cleared Brooks to participate in one-on-one drills for the first time. He was nervous, he said. Just seven months had passed since the injury.
“That first week, I was like, ‘Whew. All right, here we go,’ ” he said. “I wasn’t going to allow myself to play differently because I tore my Achilles. I would rather tear my Achilles again, playing how I usually play, instead of being like, ‘I don’t know …’
“When I came back, it would be like this never happened. I wanted to be that much better. I wanted to prove to everybody else that this wasn’t going to be the end of my career. This wasn’t going to hamper anything as far as my playing style, none of that. That was my mindset throughout. So I went out there, and after that first contact, nothing happened. I was like, ‘Oh [hell], I’m not really worried anymore.’”
Brooks’ locker isn’t far from the doorway to the team’s shower area, and just then, cornerback Rasul Douglas emerged through the doorway and slapped Brooks’ right hand.
“Best f—g lineman I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.